Principles of Generosity (2 Cor. 9)

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. – 2 Corinthians 9:6-9 (NIV)

I’m trying to figure out the best way for a Christian to handle personal finances because of being Christian. In other words, how does being a Christian change one’s handling of money? No topic is more obvious in this regard than tithing and generosity, as tithing is a foreign concept to most unbelievers (unfortunately, its a foreign concept to many Christians, too).

Turning to Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, Paul addresses the topic of giving. To the get the context of the passage quoted above, you should read those two chapters in their entirety. No seriously, read them. I just re-read them now. What better use of time than reading Scripture? Furthermore, it will help you weigh what I’m about to say here.

Specific, Yet General

To be clear, Paul here is talking about a specific collection that was being gathered to help the Christians in Jerusalem who were under intense persecution and poverty. This giving was not necessarily for the spreading of the gospel in general (as much of our missional giving is today) but rather to meet a specific need of specific people (something our churches do today as well). Even so, I think this passage and its context provide us with some key principles to use in general as we think about giving. These are more or less philosophical, or overarching principles. More practical principles could certainly also be gleaned from this passage.

  1. The giver’s attitude matters more than the size of the gift. You could say that the quality is what matters, not the quantity.
  2. Deciding how much to give is a personal, spiritual process, not a mathematical one. Once you know how much, follow through on it.
  3. Though its not easy, give generously with joy. Focus not on how much your gift hurts you financially, but on how much it helps others and praises God.

Quality, not Quantity

Although Paul celebrates the Macedonian churches’ large gift, he is doing so not because of its size, but rather because of its relation to the resources of those churches and the attitude of the Christians there. So on the surface, it looks as if he cares about the size of the gift, but he is more concerned about the faith of the believers. Paul notes that the Macedonian Christians “urgently pleaded with [him] for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” They gave because they wanted to give. Similarly, Jesus highlights the widow who gives out of her poverty and points out that her heart is more right before God than Pharisees who give much more.

Decide and Follow Through

It is interesting to me that Paul doesn’t mention a number when he is encouraging the Corinthians to give generously. He says that “each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give” and that “the gift is acceptable according to what one has.” We tend to crave black and white direction and rules of thumb. There is biblical precedent for tithing 10%, but Paul doesn’t mention that here. This tells me that giving is, and should be, a spiritual exercise. Each person should decide in his or her heart how much to give. This involves prayer, meditation, and much thought to determine the actual amount for you, but as the first principle says, focus more on your spirit of giving and less on the number of zeros.

Step 1: Decide how much to give. Step 2: Give it! Much of these two chapters involves Paul holding the Corinthians accountable to a pledge they had already made. If your decision is based on prayer, reading, meditation, and the leading of the Spirit, isn’t an unexpected bill irrelevant?

Give with Joy

The final principle I’m drawing from this passage is the most difficult. Paul lifts up the Macedonian brothers as the paragon of generosity. Their “extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Obviously, we have no idea what kind of percentage of income they were giving, and that’s probably a good thing. But Paul mentions that they gave “beyond their ability.” What’s more, they pleaded for the privileged of participating in the gift to the Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. Can you imagine that today? Christians pleading with their pastors to allow them to give more! This is why Paul was so encouraged by those churches. And for good reason: he says later that the gift will cause many thanks and praises to God, that it supplies the real needs of real people, and that it accompanies the message of the gospel. Giving does many good things indeed, both for the giver and the receiver.

Here we come to the passage quoted above. “God loves a cheerful giver.” Be sure not to take this out of context, though. Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to give beyond their ability as the Macedonians did, and cheerful giving does not cause God’s love. Nonetheless, there is a tension between Paul wanting the Corinthians to give generously but also out of love, joy, and “under no compulsion.” How can we give generously with joy – they seem to be in conflict with each other!

Learning to Give

There is a small line in this passage that is easy to miss – I missed it on the first reading. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” All of this is centered on God’s love through Christ. How can we give generously with joy? Because we have already been made rich! The better question is, how can we not give generously with joy? Paul ends the passage with, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” as if the statement just exploded out of him after reflecting on the topic of God’s generosity.

The great generosity that God has lavished on us compels us, through our own free will, to response “under no compulsion” except that of love, joy, and grace. There is, then, no reason to give other than because we are joyful in what we have already been given freely. We have freely received, Jesus says, therefore, freely give.

Now What?

So then, how do we actually carry this out? This is a whole lot easier said than done. Do I think about how else I could use this money when I am throwing it in the offering plate? Yes. Its hard not to. Even knowing and reflecting on what God has done for me, I still have trouble putting my money where my mouth is. Would it be a joyous thing to deplete my savings for the benefit of the church. Yes and no. I would love helping the church, but I would hate and immediately become worried about my financial situation. Logically, there must be a balance, for if I were to give so much that I then would have to ask the church or someone else to help me out, the purpose would be defeated. However, if I were to give so little that it would make little difference in my everyday life or lifestyle, then I would probably be giving too little. There is a balance somewhere in the middle – one that challenges us and is uncomfortable.

But this brings me back to earlier principles in a cyclical type of manner – the amount is the wrong focus. The Spirit tends to each of us. He knows our financial situation better than even us. Let Him lead us in this, and let us follow through.